Anime Impressions is a weekly column that will run each Tuesday for the first month of the anime season. Resident GGA anime content writer Jane Y. Auman brings you the best of the new crop of shows. Choosing one to highlight each week. For the final Anime Impressions of the winter season, that show is dark action series “Dororo”. This article contains spoilers for episodes 1-4 of the series.
NOTE: This article contains mention of potentially disturbing content due to the nature of the series in question. Reader discretion is advised.
It’s too early to call a zeitgeist shift, but if shows like Dororo and its tonal cousins like Boogiepop and Others are a sign of things to come the 2020s will be an interesting decade for anime indeed. Dororo is an adaptation of a manga from the late 60s, absolutely ancient by the medium’s standards. The original manga is in fact a shorter work from one of the form’s early masters, Osamu Tezuka, a figure often called “the father of manga”. Tezuka’s most well known series in the west is Astro Boy, but it’d be a mistake to think that the two are particularly similar. Dororo, or at least its contemporary adaptation, is grim enough that calling it “gritty” seems passe.
The Faceless Swordsman
Dororo is the tale of Hyakkimaru. A wandering swordsman with an interesting backstory. Hyakkimaru is the son of a warlord, one who was willing to give absolutely anything for more power. The first episode of the series deals with his very literal deal with the devil (or several demons, in this case). He offers these demons anything they wish to take, and what they take is a piece each of the body of his unborn son. When Hyakkimaru is born, he has no eyes, no ears, no arms, no legs, and even no skin. Understanding what’s happened, the warlord orders one of his wife’s attendants to dispose of the baby. Instead, it’s a Moses situation. She secretly places the gravely ill child in a basket and sets him floating down the river, his fate left to the whim of chance.
We learn in the third episode, to skip ahead a bit, who finds him. A highly skilled doctor and alchemist named Jukai–who has an entire backstory of his own that I’ll not spoil. Jukai takes the boy in, crafting him an artificial body with his expertise. Jukai also teaches Hyakkimaru swordsmanship despite the boy’s obvious handicaps, building katana blades into both of his artificial arms. Hyakkimaru grows up to be a demon-slayer. Despite being blind in the traditional sense, he has a “spirit sight” of sorts. This lets him sense evil beings, who appear to him as ominous red smoke. He is also, as one might assume, incredibly skilled with those swords of his.
So that’s the run-down. In some ways it’s one of fiction’s oldest tales–protagonist with extraordinary abilities fights diabolical monsters. It’s a hard premise to truly screw up, but it can be equally difficult to make it truly shine. It’s such a well-worn story that it can be hard to find ways to breathe new life into such hoary tropes. Doubly so, one must imagine, when your actual source material is as old as Dororo‘s is.
Old Story, New Telling
Thankfully, if Dororo does one thing extremely well, it’s playing old story devices so slickly that you don’t mind if you’ve seen them a thousand times before. I’ve already said that Dororo is grim, but in some ways that’s kind of underselling it. Dororo‘s world is one of rain, blood, rust, and demons. Most stories in this series end with someone dying. Be that tragically or in more of a bittersweet manner.
Now, this would be kind of dull if the series weren’t exciting to watch, but as alluded to, it has a wonderful flair for the dramatic. Largely, the series is cut like an old samurai film. Something that’s appropriate both to the age of the material and its general style. There is a lot of excellent camera-work, even if the show does occasionally betray possibly having a somewhat tight budget. Dramatic framing is frequent as well, showing that director Kazuhiro Furuhashi and series compositor Yasuko Kobayashi have their heads in the right place for this kind of material. There’s also a fascinating sub-theme of Hyakkimaru regaining his lost body parts as he defeats these demons. A particularly compelling example in the fourth episode has the audio suddenly jump to a very loud volume as he regains his hearing.
Much of that material though is fare typical to this genre. In the show’s first third alone we’ve had a cursed katana who drives a samurai to murder indiscriminately and a village led by a snake demon who they sacrifice travelers to in order to steal their wealth. The style and pacing carry what might otherwise be rather rote tales. It’s a testament both to the timelessness of the original manga and the strength of the adaptation that it works as well as it does.
Dororo isn’t all gloom and doom though. It’s here where we should mention the title character. Dororo himself is a sort of co-protagonist, a young boy-thief who ends up tagging along on Hyakkimaru’s quest. Dororo lightens the mood of the show a fair bit. Not so much that it’s obnoxious–he gets in no small amount of danger himself–but enough to break up the rest of the series’ relative bleakness.
The Short of It
All of this together makes for a surprisingly accessible watch. Longtime anime fans get to see a series done in a style that’s pretty rare nowadays. Relative neophytes get something that is in line with live action samurai fare with which they might be more familiar. It’s hard to say whether it being on Amazon Prime Video will help or hurt. The service has a poor reputation among anime fans, but it’s certainly well-used.
As I mentioned at the very start of this article, it’s hard to predict the tides of artistic zeitgeist. But regardless of whether Dororo is a sign of things to come or purely a throwback to an earlier era of Japanese pop culture, it’s honestly a delight. There is a lot to be said for knowing what you want to do and doing it well. Dororo knows what it wants to be, and is pulling it off excellently so far.
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